MURDER IMPERIAL and THE SONG OF THE GLADIATOR by Paul Doherty

1 11 2011

Rome, 313 AD

As visitors to this site and Medieval Mysteries may have remarked, I am a big Paul Doherty fan. (Actually, we all are at MedievalMysteries.com. His new Brother Athelastan novel will come out in November!) But this series, set in Rome in the time of Constantine, the first Emperor to recognise Christianity, was new to me.

I have now read the first two, Murder Imperial and The Song of the Gladiator.

I discovered – I hadn’t know, but why am I not surprised? – that the instigator of this revolution was not so much Constantine himself  as  his mother, Helena – the great woman behind the great man.

Helena was an inn-keeper’s daughter from York, in England, where Constantine himself was first proclaimed Emperor, and where an imposing statue of him still dominates the square outside York Minster.

Doherty’s Constantine is actually little more than a glorified gladiator, but the revolution that took place during his reign was profound and all-pervading. In a few short years, Christianity went from being the object of a brutal mass persecution under Diocletian with hundreds being slaughtered in the amphitheatre in Rome and thousands more all over the Empire, to being by far the most widely respected and  practised and influential religion in the Roman world.

A position it never subsequently lost.

But such radical changes do not come about easily.

A great many people, including most of the ancient Roman aristocracy, the patricians, dreamt of putting back the clock. Some did more than dream of doing so. And putting back the clock meant getting rid of his “bitch, “witch” – you name it – of a mother.

Constantine was unconcerned, relying on the fact that the army adored him. His mother knew better: when the assassination attempt took place, the army would not be there. So she ran a network of secret agents, her spies. One such agente in rebus politicis was Claudia, Helena’s “little mouse”, who could go anywhere, watching and listening, and no one would even notice her.

In the first of these stories, three courtesans from the household of Domitilla (a de luxe brothel) are murdered. As Domitilla is by appointment purveyor of prostitutes to the Emperor, and as all three had recently serviced him, Helena finds it more than a little disturbing when they are discovered, one after the other, strangled, and each with the Cross of Christ cut into her forehead and both cheeks. Is the serial killer out to discredit Constantine or the Christian religion? Both, she and Claudia decide.

But then it transpires that a professional assassin known as the Sicarius, whose services Helena herself once made use of, may be killing the girls. In which case, it is aimed at her as much as her son, because after using the assassin she gave orders for him to be permanently silenced. Clearly the wrong man was disposed of – and the right man knows about it.

And Claudia? The little mouse who can go anywhere unremarked and unremembered? She has her own agenda. A couple of years earlier her simpleton brother had been murdered and she herself raped by a man with a chalice tattooed on his wrist. Her own personal objective, overriding all else, is to find and kill him.

This subplot surfaces again in the second book, The Song of the Gladiator. Helena summons Claudia to their summer residence to investigate a stolen relic – the sword reputedly used to decapitate St Paul – and a particularly gruesome murder which is apparently related to the theft.  This time, though, the new religion forms the backdrop to the story even more directly, for the Christians, without a common enemy, have now begun to turn on each other. Constantine and Helena invite representatives of the warring factions of the Church to debate their differences in the royal presence. But can these theologians really be responsible for the theft and the murder, and for the other murders that follow? Or is an outsider deliberately causing havoc in order to sabotage the nrgotiations, or perhaps with some other quite different motive?

Then the palatial villa itself is attacked.

These are enthralling stories set in a fascinating period of history. Though no one at the time realised it, these dozen or so years before Constantine and Helena quit Rome and moved the whole caboodle to Byzantium and established the new imperial city of Constantinople (New Rome!), were the final years of the eight centuries of Roman hegemony and civilisation. After that, for a thousand years, the Popes ruled Rome and the West; another kettle of fish altogether.

Imagine Queen Victoria, the Empress of India (yes, that was one of her titles) and her son King Edward upping sticks in the 1880s and making New Delhi the imperial capital and hub of that vast empire “on which the sun never set”. What would the people of Britain – after all, it was the “British” Empire – have thought? And done?

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18 03 2012
THE QUEEN OF THE NIGHT by Paul Doherty « Kanti Burns, Book Reviews and more

[…] I said in my review of Murder Imperial and The Song of the Gladiator, these are enthralling stories set in a fascinating period of history. […]

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